The lives of Georges
Vanier, his wife Pauline, and their son Jean are evidence that individual
commitment can make the world a better place. The Vanier family
is an outstanding example of social commitment and accomplishment
in our century.
When the First World
War erupted in Europe in 1914, Georges Vanier was a young Montréal
lawyer. Reading the newspaper accounts of the events in Europe,
he felt "a deep compassion and an active desire to right, as
far as it was in my power, the heinous wrong done.
" Leaving his law practice,
he helped organize Canada's first French-Canadian volunteer unit, the
Vingt-deuxième Régiment (the famous "Vandoos")
and served with them as an officer until he was wounded in battle. After
losing a leg, he was awarded the Military Cross and Distinguished Service
Shortly after his return to
Canada, Georges met the tall and beautiful young woman who was soon to
become his wife. From the time she was a child, Pauline Archer had dreamed
of devoting herself to great causes. Giving up her idea of becoming a
nun, she found in her marriage a lifetime of service and commitment to
After the war Georges entered
the diplomatic service, representing Canada at the League of Nations -
in London and at international conferences. In 1939 he was named Canadian
Minister to France, just as Europe teetered on the brink of another war.
When the Germans marched into Paris, the Vaniers escaped to London, where
they turned their energies to the thousands of European refugees escaping
to England. Pauline joined the Red Cross and began visiting hospitals.
"I set out everyday in an army car... to every hospital to find out
where all the French wounded were. I found I could be particularly helpful
to those who spoke no English, since only rarely did the hospital staff
speak French." In 1941 the Vaniers returned to Canada, where they
tried to convey the seriousness of the situation in Europe, and to encourage
Canadians to get involved in the war effort. Georges lectured about the
plight of the refugees and the victims of Nazi tyranny. This was a frustrating
experience for the Vaniers, whose appeals were met with indifference and
even hostility. In the words of Pauline: "We had been through so
much, but when we returned home we realized that Canada had been so far
removed from Europe that many Canadians could not grasp the seriousness
of events over there - the cruelty and suffering of war, the German atrocities,
the risks incurred by refugees, the nightly destruction of London. It
all seemed far too remote to be believed." Many Canadians at that
time, like their US neighbours, did not want to become involved in Europe's
problems, nor did they feel obliged to act as the world's conscience in
providing a refuge for the victims. Canadians were still recovering from
the hardships of the Great Depression, and felt that lowering the immigration
barriers imposed during the 1930s might threaten the precarious job market.
Underlying the economic fears was also the widespread existence of anti-Semitism.
Thousands of European Jews who had escaped the Nazi tide sought refuge
in Canada, only to be turned away at the border.
In 1940, Georges Vanier wrote
to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, pointing out that "Canada has a
wonderful opportunity to be generous and yet profit by accepting some
of these people." But despite their efforts in petitioning the government
and many groups across Canada, the Vaniers were unable to bring about
a change in Canadian refugee and immigration policy during the war years.
In April, 1945, George Vanier
joined a group of American congressmen touring the infamous death camp
at Buchenwald just one week after its liberation. Numbed and shocked by
the indescribable horror of what he had witnessed, Vanier made a moving
radio broadcast over the CBC expressing his shame at having done nothing.
"How deaf we were then," he cried, "to cruelty and the
cries of pain which came to our ears, grim forerunners of the mass torture
and murders which were to follow." Vanier's shame is a mirror of
Canada's shame in that regrettable chapter of our immigration history.
Back in Paris following the
liberation of France, Georges continued to appeal to Ottawa to accept
the many destitute refugees who besieged the Canadian embassy. Pauline
organized reception services at the train station. "We greeted the
refugees with drinks, refreshments, clothes and survival kits, and tried
to reach their families, friends or anyone who might take them in. Many,
however, had no idea whether anyone they knew was still alive, let alone
their whereabouts. For them, we arranged temporary shelter. Then we took
their photos and stuck these up on long panels lining both sides of the
railway station in hopes that someone in the crowds would recognize the
name or the picture of a long-lost relative or friend." In the years
following the war, the plight of the more than a million "displaced
persons" in Europe aroused the sympathy of many Canadians. The Vaniers,
along with other advocates of a more humane immigration policy, pressed
on with their campaign, and gradually the Canadian government liberalized
its strict immigration regulations. Between 1947 and 1953, more than 186,000
European refugees settled in Canada.
The Vaniers returned to Montréal
from their diplomatic posting in Paris in 1953, but retirement did not
suit this active couple. In 1959, Georges Vanier accepted Prime Minister
Diefenbaker's offer to serve as Canada's first French-Canadian Governor
Georges Vanier's years in office
were turbulent ones, with economic problems plaguing the country, a succession
of minority governments, and the rise of Québec separatism. But
Georges and Pauline's obvious concern for Canadians won them enormous
affection. They traveled to all parts of the country, speaking on behalf
of the poor, youth, and the family. When Georges Vanier died in 1967 over
15,000 messages of sympathy flowed into Government House, many from children.
Perhaps one young boy said it best when he came home from school and told
his mother: "The flags are flying low today because a good man has
died." The Vaniers' son, Jean, continued the spiritual and humanitarian
tradition of the family, establishing "L'Arche" (The Ark), a
co-operative self-help community with an aim to help those with mental
handicaps to live full and productive lives. After her husband's death,
Pauline Vanier joined her son in France, where she became resident grandmother
at L'Arche. She died there in 1991 at the age of 93. Today, Jean Vanier's
"L'Arche" movement has spread to many parts of the world, including
Canada. Its communities continue to exemplify the ideal that love, understanding,
and commitment can make a big difference in the quality of our lives and
to the societies in which we live.
(Reference: histori.ca website)